Pool C, which opens March 9th from Marlins Park in Miami, features some of the frontline baseball talent on the planet. Baseball titans United States and Dominican Republic come into the tournament loaded with All-Star caliber players, but with different narratives and expectations. Canada looks for a chance to display its improved quality of baseball, and perhaps laments its placement alongside two baseball juggernauts. Finally, tournament newcomer Colombia hopes to make a splash behind its 1-2 pitching punch. Let’s take a look at the players and stories to watch in Pool C.
Coming into the 2017 Classic, the United States finds itself at a bit of a crossroads as it pertains to WBC play. 3 tournaments in, and it wouldn’t exactly be fair to say that the American team has played poorly. They finished 3-3 in 8th place in 2006, 4-4 in 4th in 2009, and 3-3 in 6th in 2013, for an exactly .500 record of 10-10 overall in WBC play. While such results are hardly terrible, for baseball’s homeland, they represent something of an embarrassment. And each loss is viewed through the lens of what might have been. Although the American team at the WBC has seen the likes of Roger Clemens, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Chase Utley, David Wright, Evan Longoria, Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Braun, Joe Mauer, Jonathan Lucroy, Ben Zobrist, Adam Jones, and Giancarlo Stanton, the talk around the US team always tends to focus on those players who are not playing, rather than those who are.
And the same is true in 2017. So much of the discussion in of the US team leading up to the roster announcement was about the possibility of a truly all-world US team, featuring the likes of Trout, Kershaw, and Bryant. But if there’s one thing that 3 iterations of the WBC have told us, it’s that American major leaguers do not hold World Baseball Classic glory in the same regard as their Caribbean and East-Asian counterparts, and that fewer are willing to run the injury risk or disrupt their spring training routines in order to don their national colors.
Despite the absence of a potential US god-team, the Americans still bring an absurdly talented roster into the Classic. Long time big league manager Jim Leyland will come out of retirement to manage the team, and he will have a treasure trove at his disposal, as well as a host of tough calls. Buster Posey looks to anchor the team from behind the plate (somehow, impossibly, forcing Jonathan Lucroy into a backup/pinch hitting role), and he will be joined on the US infield by Nolan Arenado at 3rd and Paul Goldschmidt at 1st. I’d expect to see Brandon Crawford get the start at SS for the Americans, but wouldn’t be entirely shocked to see Alex Bregman push him for that role if Crawford’s bat goes a little cold, and while 2B looks like Daniel Murphy’s to lose, he’ll receive plenty of competition from Matt Carpenter and Ian Kinsler.
The outfield, likewise, will feature plenty of power with Giancarlo Stanton manning right. Adam Jones and Andrew McCutchen can fight it out between themselves to decide who will play CF and who will play LF. Christian Yelich, coming off a 5.3 WAR season, may find himself relegated to a left-handed specialist pinch hitter.
One big blow to the American hopes is the absence of prospective team ace Max Scherzer. Scherzer had signed on to pitch for the stars and stripes, and he seemed quite enthusiastic to give it a go, stating:
"I've just seen different games and videos where the fans are going crazy -- especially in the Latin American countries -- so it just seems like such an environment like that is what I want to pitch in."
Scherzer would have looked great as the ace at the top of the American rotation, dueling it out with Johnny Cueto in the opening round, along with perhaps Felix Hernandez, and Julio Urías as the tournament advanced, but, alas, it was not to be. In early January, the reigning Cy Young award winner revealed that he had pitched the end of last season while suffering from an injury to a finger on his throwing hand, an injury which medical evaluation revealed to be a stress fracture to his throwing hand. Following the diagnosis, Scherzer understandably withdrew from the Classic in order to give himself time to heal for the upcoming MLB season.
Despite the absence of Scherzer, the Americans will hardly be without talent on the mound. Chris Archer, Michael Fulmer, Marcus Stroman, Tanner Roark and Danny Duffy may all be a step below Max Scherzer in terms of absolutely elite major league talent, they are all more than capable major league pitchers. Indeed, Jim Leyland will be faced with the unenviable task of picking 3 (at most 4) of these names to start and relegating the remaining pitchers to the bullpen (to say nothing of J.A. Happ, Sonny Gray, or Brett Cecil).
Speaking of the bullpen, the Americans’ should be strong. Andrew Miller looks be be the biggest bullet in Leyland’s gun, though it remains to be seen if he will be used as a more conventional closer, or in the all-purpose relief ace role we saw with Cleveland this postseason. Either way, Miller will have plenty of backup. Luke Gregerson, Tyler Clippard, and David Robinson are all more than capable MLB closers, and will serve admirably as the bridge to Miller, should they choose him to close out games. One potential issue is the lack of a lefty specialist if Miller is reserved for 9th innings only, but the US might be able to turn to natural starters such as Drew Smyly or Danny Duffy to fill those roles.
Prediction: 2nd Place
In any other group in this tournament, the Americans would be second to none as favorites. They bring a talented and deep roster loaded with MLB stars, albeit not the all world roster that many hoped for coming into the Classic. But as bright as the American stars might shine, the Dominican’s look to be just a little brighter, and the Americans may well have to settle for second.
Canada is not thought of as one of the prime suppliers of MLB talent, being dwarfed by Pool C opponents United States and Dominican Republic. It is neither thought of as one of the great international powers, such as Japan, or, pre-defections, the mighty Cuban team. Nevertheless, Canada has earned for itself a place in the world of international baseball. The 2013 Classic was a disappointment for Canada, finishing with a 1-2 record, including a 9-4 loss to the United States and a devastating 14-4 rout at the hands of the upstart Italians that ultimately spelled the end for team Canada.
Despite the disappointing finish Canada has been strong in international baseball in the years since. Canada placed 5th, but with a 5-1 record in the inaugural WBSC in 2015. They defended their gold medal at the 2015 Pan Am games beating the US 7-6 to claim the title. And they figure to have another solid team coming into the 2017 Classic. Canada’s offense figures to be spearheaded by the slugging duo of Freddie Freeman and Justin Morneau. Morneau, the native of British Columbia, is coming off a truncated season with the Chicago White Sox that saw him post an underwhelming .261/.303/.429 line in 58 injury plagued games. Morneau looked to be experiencing something of a late career renaissance in 2014 with the Rockies before injuries derailed each of his last two seasons, limiting him to under 60 games in each year. When healthy, Morneau is one of the stronger players on the Canadian team and they will need him if they have any hope of scoring a miracle against the Americans or Dominicans.
Freeman, unlike Morneau, is not actually a native of Canada. Born in Fountain Valley, California, Freeman is the son of Canadian parents, which grants him dual Canadian and American citizenship. In principle this means he could have opted to play for the American team (though almost certainly as a backup to Paul Goldschmidt). But, whether because of a desire to start at 1st, or because of love for the homeland of his parents, Freeman has agreed to don the maple leaf and represent the Great White North. And what an addition to the Canadian roster Freeman will prove to be. The 26 slugger for Atlanta is coming off an excellent season that saw him rake at a .302/.400/.569 clip while cracking 34 home runs, and driving 91 overall for a rather anemic Braves offense to finish 6th overall in National League MVP voting.
The presence of Morneau and Freeman not withstanding, Canada’s lineup will sorely miss some of its biggest names from the big leagues. Reds first baseman Joey Votto opted to sit out the classic to work on parts of his game that he “decided were lacking”, and released a statement via twitter.
From Joey Votto #reds #wbc2017 pic.twitter.com/ytw9vYcOTR— Cincinnati Reds (@Reds) December 29, 2016
Votto is not the only player Canada will be missing. Current Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin, who had been planning to play at SS for the Canadian team (a position he played in college) has been held out of the tournament due to an inability to get insurance coverage for his contract in the event that he is injured during the tournament. Michael Saunders, meanwhile, opted not to participate after joining on with the Phillies this offseason and hopes to use spring training to win a bigger role with the club. Brett Lawrie is out with an injury to his rib. The absence of such established big league contributors isn’t doing Canada any favors in a group dominated by American and Dominican All-Stars.
The pitching staff is where Canada looks to be the weakest. Starting duties may fall to some combination of Ryan Dempster (retired), Andrew Albers, Rowan Wick, or Dustin Molleken, or one of a host of other MiLB pitchers. The bullpen will have the services of John Axford, along with former big leaguer and current Yomiuri Giant Scott Mathieson, but will otherwise be rather short on quality big league arms.
One intriguing name is that of retired long-time big leaguer Éric Gagné. Gagné, of course, authored a number of dominating seasons out of the bullpen for the Dodgers in the early 2000’s even taking home a Cy Young award in 2003. Gagné retired from major league baseball in 2008, but has remained active in the game. Gagné has pitched sporadically in the Canadian American Association, fairing reasonably well, and certainly helping attendance in his native country where is quite highly thought of. If Gagné can replicate even a fraction of the great talent which he possessed in his youth, it would be a great boost for team Canada’s chances.
Prediction: 3rd Place
Canada has to be cursing its luck to find itself in Pool C. While their roster is likely not strong enough to come away with the classic crown, in almost any other Pool in the tournament, their collection of MLB and MiLB talent would give them a strong fighting chance to advance to the second round. Confronted with the seemingly insurmountable American and Dominican teams however, along the the possibility of catching Colombia on a hot night from Quintana or Teheran, Canada may find itself playing 3 solid games and staring at a 1-2 or 0-3 record. Such is life in tournament baseball.
Baseball has a long history in Colombia, stretching all the way back to the first recorded game in 1867. But unlike its South American neighbor Venezuela, Colombia has had little impact on baseball as a global game, neither winning glory in international competition nor supplying a host of players to the North American professional leagues. Indeed, in the history of major league baseball, only twenty players from the Andean nation have ever donned a uniform. But Colombia has proven to be a quick learner, as baseball appears to be on the rise there. Beginning in the 90’s, the big leagues began to see talented Colombian players such as Jolbert Cabrera, Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria. From there, the trickle has only increased, as fully more than half of the twenty Colombian players in MLB history have debuted in the years since 2010.
And this new baseball momentum for Columbia was carried into the qualifying tournament for the 2017 Classic. Columbia was sorted into Qualifying Group 2, along with host nation Panama, baseball neophyte France, and an underrated Spanish team that has fared well in European baseball. Armed with a roster including 16 MiLB-affiliated players, including William Cuevas of the Red Sox, Harold Ramirez of the Pirates, Reynaldo Rodriguez of the Twins, and Dilson Herrera and Nabil Crismatt of the Mets, the Colombians struck first in the qualifying round beating Spain by a 9 to 2 score behind strong pitching from Cuevas. The next game Colombia rode a strong pitching performance by Liga Colombiana de Béisbol Profesional pitcher Karl Triana to a 6-3 win over host nation Panamá to put themselves into the final winner-take-all qualifying game. Panamá rebounded from their defeat to take out France in the double elimination game in order to set up a rematch with Colombia. Colombia started out strong, with Crismatt striking out 4 through 3 innings, but ran into trouble in the 4th. A double by Carlos Ruiz and an intentional walk to Javier Guerra put runners on first and second for 1B Carlos Quiroz, who singled through the right side of the infield to make it 1-0 Panamá. That score held until the bottom of the sixth inning, when, with 2 outs and runners on first and second, Colombia’s Adrián Sánchez lined a ball to center scoring Reynaldo Rodriguez and knotting the score at 1-1. Tension mounted as the teams exchanged zeroes in the 7th. Then, leading off the bottom of the 8th, MLB Futures-Star Dilson Herrera caught a hold of a 3-1 fastball from former big leaguer Manuel Corpas to give Colombia a 2-1 lead, and, ultimately, see them through into their first WBC proper.
And the good news for Colombia has only kept coming as the tournament rosters have announced. The young and hungry team which went undefeated during the qualifying rounds will be joined by a number of talented players from the bigs. The lineup will be bolstered by the addition of Indians 3B Giovanny Orshela, Yankees 2B Donovan Solano, Phillies C Jorge Alfaro, and Nationals C Jhonatan Solano. Manager Luis Urueta may opt to start Solano behind the plate and utilize Alfaro as the team’s DH to get both his and Solano’s bat into the lineup.
As big as those additions might be the lineup, the biggest names joining the Colombian roster will take their place at the top the team’s rotation. The one-two punch of the Chicago White Sox’s José Quintana and the Atlanta Braves’ Julio Teherán will give Colombia has strong an opening duo as any other team in the tournament.
Now, the most likely scenario is that Luis Urueta will use his two aces for as long as the WBC’s pitch count will allow either in the team’s first two games, or possibly in their two games against the United States and the Dominican Republic to try and steal a win. But is he is especially bold, he might try a more daring strategy. He could pitch his minor league starters against Canada in the hopes that they will be able to keep the Canadian lineup, missing many of its biggest stars, at bay. That would leave him both Teherán and Quintana to pitch in either the US or DR (whichever he feels his team has a better chance of winning) and possibly give them 9 full innings of All-Star quality pitching to try to score the upset. I remain skeptical if Urueta will employ such a strategy, but it might garner Colombia its best odds at advancing into the second round.
Prediction: 4th Place
Ultimately for Colombia, even with their All-Star rotation toppers, there is likely not enough talent on the roster to see them beyond Pool C. While strategizing may help them increase their odds of knocking off one of the giants, there are too many scenarios where the talent of the American and Dominican rosters simply overwhelm the cunning of the Colombian team. For the WBC newcomers, an upset victory against Canada, along with a close game against either the US or DR (or both) would likely give them plenty to build the Colombian baseball program on going forward.
The Dominicans come into the 2017 Classic as the defending champions and on the short-list of favorites to take home the trophy again. The 2013 team was abounding with talent, and rode a solid and consistent offense, a quality pitching staff, and an absolutely dominating bullpen to an undefeated record, culminating in a 3-0 victory over fellow Antilleans Puerto Rico. The Dominicans also cleaned up shop in the all-tournament awards, boasting the All-WBC 1B (Edwin Encarnación), 2B (Robinson Canó), SS (José Reyes), OF (Nelson Cruz), and RP (Fernando Rodney).
Despite the strength of the 2013 Dominican team at the World Baseball Classic, the intervening years have not been kind to baseball in the Dominican Republic. Although they placed 3rd and took the bronze medal at the 2014 Central American and Caribbean Games, victories were few and far between. The Dominicans finished 0-5 in the 2015 WBSC Premier 12. They were likewise winless at each of the last two Serie del Caribe Tournaments, including an extremely disheartening 0-4 finish at home in Santo Domingo which this reporter was on hand to witness.
Struggles such as this highlight one of the primary paradoxes of baseball today in the Dominican Republic. The island provides major league baseball with some of its brightest stars, and is, behind the United States itself, the 2nd leading supplier of talent to MLB. But while this large influx of talent shows the quality of Dominican play at the highest levels of organized baseball, it has left the cupboard awfully dry for those instances in which the DR doesn’t have access to its wealth of players in MLB and MiLB. That has left Dominicans fans like this young man from Santo Domingo in 2016 with precious little to cheer about outside of the WBC featuring their best and brightest from the bigs.
Fortunately for the die-hard Dominican fans, the upcoming WBC offers them another chance to see all their stars in action. And what a constellation of stars this Dominican team promises to be. Manny Machado, Robinson Canó, Adrian Beltré (hopefully, after the opening round) and Carlos Santana on the infield. Nelson Cruz, José Bautista, Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte in the outfield. Johnny Cueto, Carlos Martínez and Edinson Vólquez on the mound. Dellin Betances, Santiago Casilla, Jeurys Familia, and the ageless Fernando Rodney out of the bullpen. Of all the strengths on the team, the bullpen figures to again be the biggest. In 2013, the Dominican bullpen dominated, tossing 40 IP even and surrendering only 6 ER, including an overwhelming 20.2 consecutive scoreless innings to close out the tournament. While that level of mastery probably involves a some luck and a bit of small-sample-size-theater, any bullpen that can feature Hansel Robles, Álex Colomé, Héctor Neris, and Fernando Abad as middle and long relievers clearly has an overabundance of talent. Given the (comparative) question marks in the rotation, look for the bullpen to be one of the keys to another deep Dominican run.
Short of complacency, and how to fit all of his stars into the lineup while getting everyone enough playing time and not bruising any of these All-Star egos, the biggest problem manager Tona Peña is likely to face in the tournament is the inexperience in the rotation behind clear ace Johnny Cueto. If the Dominicans do run into any trouble, either in Pool C play or in the tournament at large, it might come from a rotation behind Johnny Cueto which is long on talent, but perhaps a little short on experience and poise. Pitchers like Martínez and Vólquez have an abundance of skill, but are not at the point in their careers where they are beyond the occasional hiccough of a bad game, whether due to a loss of command, or to frustration should the opposition get a few knocks against them.
If the Dominicans find themselves in elimination game with Cueto unavailable, it would not be a surprise to see Peña turn to another Dominican methuselah, Atlanta pitcher Bartolo Colón, listed on the pitcher pool. Colón has been around the block in the big leagues during his now 19-year MLB career, and he’s seen just about everything that a pitcher can see. While he lacks the upside and the sheer velocity of youngsters like Martínez, Tony Peña may favor the experience of Colón given that the Dominican lineup figures to be powerful enough that the team may need high ceiling pitching less than it will need low floor pitching in support of its heavy bats, and Colón may be the best bet behind Cueto to provide the latter. Depending on the performance of the starters behind Cueto in the opening round, Colón may again find himself taking the hill in a big second or championship round game for the DR.
Prediction: 1st Place
The American roster is strong, but the Dominicans are simply too deep and too talented to be considered anything but the favorites in Pool C and, really, the tournament overall. If we do see the Dominicans slip up, look for an off start from one of the pitchers behind Johnny Cueto (Vólquez, Colón, and Martínez, along with Iván Nova, Luis Severino, and Samuel Deduno), but expect to see more domination from the Dominicans.